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November 27, 2012

Essay: Surviving breast cancer, and losing so many friends

(Continued)

WASHINGTON —

My friend always thought she'd get married and have kids "later." There is no "later" any more. The cancer has metastasized to her bones. Most of the other young women in her support group have already died. She is hanging in, but her priorities have changed. Many in the military don't understand her change of attitude. They don't understand how her career no longer matters, that she doesn't want to work 12-hour days in administration so she can get her captain's bars. They don't get that she only wants to care for patients, not paperwork, as her life runs out.

I paddle on a 40-foot dragon boat with her and other breast cancer survivors. We talk about lost loves, and current ones, about the "perfect" guy, speed dating and cancer. We dream of our team's buying a winery, retiring there and being waited on a by a crew of handsome, buff young men (or women, depending on personal orientation). Sometimes we talk about dying.

Another friend has a heart as big as the world and two teenage kids she refuses to leave. At 58, she, too, has Stage IV metastatic breast cancer. It is in her spine and has traveled to her brain. She has already outlived her prognosis by three years. Her body is so battered from both the cancer and the treatment that she is hunched like an old woman, her one arm hanging useless at her side. Still, she tries to do for others.

There's one final friend. I met her about a year ago at a cancer conference. As I write this, she is standing at her kitchen counter in the morning sunshine taking pill after pill after pill. Two years ago, she was told she had two weeks to live. She has endured horrific treatments for her rare type of cancer and continues to do so. Her oncologist told her no one survives this particular cancer. Yet she is so full of life, so happy to be alive, that I sometimes forget she is dying.

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